Cheryl Pappas is one of those remarkably intuitive writers whose every word—every image—makes sense, coming together like an intricately woven tapestry. It’s only through analysis that her craft choices—the threads of that tapestry—truly become apparent.
The common element in Cheryl’s work is control. Whether it’s a raw, unfurling anaphora like “Spent” in HAD, or a viscerally descriptive scene like “1985” in Ghost Parachute, Cheryl seems to effortlessly control every element in her work.
But no great writing comes without toil. It takes revision, a few tears, another revision, and a part of the writer’s soul to produce. That’s why I wanted to know a little bit more about Cheryl’s process. I chose a specific piece that uses an interesting form gaining in popularity: the hermit crab flash, in which a story is told in a borrowed, familiar structure, such as a shopping list, recipe, or quiz.
The multiple-choice structure of “Homework,” originally published by The Chattahoochee Review and set to be the final piece in her forthcoming chapbook, The Clarity of Hunger (Word West Press, September 2021), reads like an emotional choose-your-own adventure. The form, the choices, and the language pull the reader in as an active participant.
The experimental form of the hermit crab flash worked so well both on paper and in audio format on an episode of Micro.
Cheryl was so kind and receptive to the idea of a brief exploration of her process as it relates to this piece. Her answers speak to her approach to writing generally, which is both fascinating and enlightening.
Micro: What emotion, feeling, or image do you think of when you think about your piece “Homework”?
Cheryl Pappas: I’d say bittersweet. It’s got shades of nostalgia, but the kind you imagine you’d have at a later point in your life.
Micro: What do you hope readers will feel or think about when they read it?
Cheryl Pappas: I hope readers will create their own images, of their memories, of their longings, their long-standing questions. The things that won’t let go.
Micro: What was the original “spark” or idea that inspired it?
Cheryl Pappas: A couple of years ago, right before I turned 50, I had a health scare. An MRI revealed an abnormal spot on my brain after I lost my balance one night. The word mini-stroke floated about. I had had this big birthday celebration planned at our house, with friends coming from all over. I enjoyed the party immensely, but there was a tinge of darkness to it all—I had a second MRI scheduled a few days later so the doctors could take a closer look. Everything I did in my life during those few weeks of not knowing—a casual slip of the tongue, a missed step—took on greater meaning as I wondered about the health of my brain. Being on the cusp of 50 had already brought out my reflective side, but with this big question mark weighing on me as well, I felt life acutely.
I wrote “Homework” in this period. A few weeks later, a radiologist told me I have a “beautiful brain” and the spot was most likely just an artifact from a migraine.
Micro: Did you intend to craft it as a hermit crab flash? What drew you to the idea of using a multiple-choice assignment?
Cheryl Pappas: I sat down and wrote a draft in one sitting, without too much thinking and fussing. When I was younger, trying to sort out the world, I always imagined a teacher asking me questions at the end of my life. I was probably 19. So this is an old framework of my mind. Homework assignments, like medical reports, are written in a clear structure. My emotions were bumping up against that. And that contrast is what makes the hermit crab form so resonant. I’m also drawn to ideas that swing back and forth in meaning, as this work does.
Micro: How many revisions did it go through before its final form and what did the submission process look like?
Cheryl Pappas: It went through about three or four drafts. Writer friend Peter Jordan helped me fine-tune some of the images before I submitted it anywhere. When I got the email from editor Anna Schachner at the Chattahoochee Review saying she wanted to publish it, I nearly jumped out my seat I was so happy. I’d sent it to maybe five or six other places before there. Anna is an amazing editor and poet. She asked me to work on a few lines, and I’m so glad she did, because those images are much stronger than what I originally had. I’m so grateful. The form never changed. I’m proud of this piece. It was well earned.
Micro: Well earned, indeed.
Cheryl Pappas’s work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Juked, The Chattahoochee Review, HAD, and more. Her flash fiction chapbook, The Clarity of Hunger, will be published by Word West Press in September 2021 and is now available for pre-order.
Cheryl teaches hermit crab flash fiction workshops, and details can be found on her website. Registration opens on Twitter only, so keep an eye out. You can visit her site at cherylpappas.net and you can find her on Twitter at @fabulistpappas.